Ealing tragedy

The director Robert Hamer had a life blighted by his masterpiece, says Geoffrey MacNab
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The Independent Culture

"He was engaged in a process of self-destruction," Ealing Studios boss Michael Balcon famously remarked of Robert Hamer, once the brightest star in the Ealing firmament. Hamer had the misfortune to make a masterpiece early in his career and then fail to emulate it. After the peak of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), arguably the greatest Ealing comedy of all, it was a long, slow slide downwards.

"He was engaged in a process of self-destruction," Ealing Studios boss Michael Balcon famously remarked of Robert Hamer, once the brightest star in the Ealing firmament. Hamer had the misfortune to make a masterpiece early in his career and then fail to emulate it. After the peak of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), arguably the greatest Ealing comedy of all, it was a long, slow slide downwards.

Nothing Hamer made in the following 14 years, before alcoholism brought on his untimely death aged only 52 in 1963, came close to matching the subtlety, malice and searing wit of his tale of a young man blithely killing off his relatives in pursuit of an inheritance. "That picture has become a sort of yardstick for everything else I have done," he forlornly acknowledged.

He once confessed that his goal was to "make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to one another", but the British film industry of the 1940s and 1950s looked askance at such obsessions.

It was a small miracle Hamer had been allowed to make Kind Hearts and Coronets. Compared with Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico (both released a few months before), Hamer's project must have seemed decadent and perverse to the studio boss, Michael Balcon, whose self-set goal was to make films "projecting Britain and the British character".

Adapted from Roy Horniman's 1907 novel Israel Rank, it was a brittle, witty period piece in which a refined young murderer (raffishly played by Dennis Price) assassinated eight of the D'Ascoyne dynasty (Alec Guinness in a variety of disguises). Hamer declared he was trying to make "a picture that paid no regard whatever to established, although not practiced, moral convention".

It would be a mistake to view the young director as a jaded, cynical aesthete. His film It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), combines lyricism with downbeat realist family drama. In its more poetic moments, it seems like a British counterpart to Marcel Carne's Le Quai des Brumes, another tale of doomed lovers and petty criminals adrift on rainswept streets. But the director is also alert to the gossiping and backbiting of the Bethnal Green neighbourhood in which the film is set. With its barbed celebration of a close-knit community full of swells and spivs, the film could easily be mistaken for a 1940s episode of EastEnders.

Hamer also had a flair for horror. His imagination and eye for detail are apparent in "The Haunted Mirror", his segment of Ealing's portmanteau film, Dead Of Night (1945). A good-looking couple is about to be married. The girl (Googie Withers) gives the man (Ralph Michael) a mirror as a gift. Whenever he looks in its surface, he has jolting flashbacks. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, Hamer relied on the dialogue. Here, the emphasis is on disorienting camera angles and jarring cuts.

Born in Kidderminster in 1911, educated at public school and Cambridge, Hamer was groomed for a job in the Treasury. "Three factors conspired to deprive the taxpayer of his services - a total inability to grasp Ricardo's theory of rent, the proximity of Cambridge to Newmarket Heath, and five cinemas changing programmes twice weekly," says an Ealing press release from the mid-1940s. In fact, as Philip Kemp reveals in Robert Hamer After Ealing, he was sent down from Cambridge after an affair with a man.

Hamer entered the industry as a clapper boy at Gaumont-British in the mid-1930s. He was hired as an editor at Ealing in 1940. He spent almost a decade there until, after a blazing row with Balcon, he left.

By then, he was drinking heavily and his career soon began to unravel. His friend Alec Guinness remained stubbornly loyal, but financiers were much less forgiving.

Ian Carmichael starred in Hamer's last feature, School for Scoundrels (1959). As Carmichael recalls, it was a difficult shoot. In the film, whimsical comedy of the kind the British made in profusion in the 1950s, he plays Henry Palfrey, a plummy innocent abroad, competing with arch-bounder Terry-Thomas for the hand of the beautiful Janette Scott. Hamer made the film on the hoof. "When I came to do the tennis match with Terry-Thomas in School For Scoundrels, it wasn't scripted at all," says Carmichael. "[Hamer] said just carry on playing and I'll photograph it and I'll cut it up later. That was a bit too loose in style for me."

By then, Hamer's health was shot. "He wasn't a fit man. The producer used to look after him, wrap him in cotton wool, take him home at night and bring him to the studio in the morning," Carmichael recalls. Another director, Cyril Frankel, was brought in to complete the picture uncredited. It was a shabby end to a career that lasted 15 years and yielded only 10 features. Still, Hamer had one masterpiece - and that is one more than almost every other British director before or since.

A retrospective of Robert Hamer's films will be on at the NFT throughout January

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